Sparks set to fly as Chelsea, Atletico clash: UCL Group C preview

With the UEFA Champions League starting on Tuesday 12th September, ENRG Sport is previewing the famous European competition by analysing each of the eight groups, providing you with all the information so you know what to expect as the tournament progresses.

By Jamie Braidwood

Group C is next and what a group it is. Not only is it only one of two groups to feature three teams from Europe’s top five leagues, but there are story lines everywhere you look. A match up between Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone, two of Europe’s most volatile managers, is one to look out for. Atletico’s first Champions League campaign away from the Vicente Calderon is another. Roma will look to overcome recent European disappointment and replicate their continued strong domestic form, while Qarabag are the first team from Azerbaijan to play in the group stage.

And all this is without Diego Costa, who was tipped to rejoin Atletico from Chelsea this summer. He won’t feature in Chelsea’s Champions League squad this season.

 

Chelsea

The champions of England are back in Europe’s elite club competition after a one season absence. It didn’t look like they were missing it too much however, as Antonio Conte’s side strolled to the Premier League title, breaking the record for the most wins in a season in the process.

Now in his second season as Chelsea manager, Conte must prepare for what being back in the Champions League brings. Not having the burden of European football undoubtedly benefitted the Blues last season. Chelsea will now have more games and with less time to prepare for them.

Despite making a few major signings, Chelsea largely had a frustrating summer. They missed out on several of their main targets, such as Leonardo Bonucci and Romelu Lukaku, and failed in their late bids for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley. They did however secure the signing of Alvaro Morata who, at the age of 24, has already scored in the semifinals and final of the Champions League. Alongside Eden Hazard, he will make Chelsea’s attack a potent force.

There is very little doubt that Chelsea’s squad is good enough to compete with the best. Conte, however, does have a point to prove. In his previous two Champions League seasons, Conte’s dominant Italian champions Juventus disappointed, thrashed by Bayern in 2013 and eliminated at the group stage in 2014. The same team made the final a year later, following Conte’s departure. A solid campaign with Chelsea this season will silence those lingering critics once and for all.

Tournament odds: 20/1

Atletico Madrid

As they move into their new stadium, this season should be one of transition for Atletico Madrid. But at a time of uncertainty and new beginnings, it is a massive positive that they have been able to keep ahold of their prize assets, Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann.

The Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico’s new 68,000 seater stadium, will officially open on September 16, when the home side welcome Malaga, but the fact that Atletico were able to build such a magnificent and impressive stadium is largely down to Simeone’s staggering achievements over the past few years.

But just how much further can Simeone take them? Last season’s semifinal defeat to Real was the third time in four years that they had been beaten in the Champions League by their city rivals. It was another crushing blow and after getting so close on so many occasions but without any reward, it is a wonder that Simeone hasn’t left for another challenge.

Instead, he stayed so he could move Atletico into their new stadium before signing a new long term deal which commits him to the club until 2020. The decision was made after Atletico managed to keep ahold of their squad. A FIFA transfer ban meant that Atleti could not register any new players this summer, which made it imperative for them to keep stars such as Griezmann, as well as Saul Niguez, Koke and Diego Godin.

That they did, now how will they perform in their new surroundings?

Tournament odds: 20/1

 

 

Roma

It’s time for Roma to get back to business. After a summer which featured their particularly unique method of announcing new transfers, the focus is now on whether the Romans can be as creative on the pitch.

After the sale of Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, this may be a little difficult. Salah’s pace on the wing is almost impossible to replace, as are his 19 goals and 13 assists from the right.

Roma will also be without the manager who lead them to their 2nd place finish in Serie A last season. Euesebio Di Francesco has made the move from Sassuolo after Luciano Spalletti left for Inter during the summer.

But Roma are still largely the same team that have finished in the top 3 of Serie A in each of the last four seasons. Edin Dzeko continues to enjoy an Indian Summer late in his career, scoring 39 goals in all competitions last season. Radja Nainggolan remains at the club, despite Premier League interest. While Aleksandar Kolarov from Manchester City is a smart and cheap addition.

Roma could do with a decent Champions League run this season, or at least just a couple of wins. The Romans have only won one of their last 16 Champions League fixtures. And of course this season will be their first without club legend Francesco Totti, who, at the age of 40 and after 24 seasons at the club, finally retired in May.

Tournament odds: 100/1

 

Qarabag

For Qarabag to make it this far is, in itself, a remarkable achievement. By defeating FC Copenhagen over two legs in the Champions League playoff round, Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to make the group stage of the competition.

But the story is a little bit more interesting than that. Qarabag were formed in 1951 in the Azerbaijan province of Agdam but in 1993 they had to leave their home due to war. The club were forced to move over 200 miles away to Baku, the country’s capital. With the war still ongoing, Qarabag have remained there ever since. Agdam, once home to over 40,000 people, is now a ghost town and has been completely deserted.

In Baku, the club have flourished over the past few years. Qarabag have won the Azerbaijan Premier League in each of the last four seasons and qualified for the Europa League group stage in each of the last three.

This season they managed to go one step further. Up against three European heavyweights however, this campaign does not promise much for Qarabag. But in the far, south eastern corner of Europe, Qarabag will give it their best shot. While their squad is largely made up of Azerbaijan nationals, keep an eye on their South African striker Dino Ndlovu. He was their top scorer last season.

Tournament odds: 500/1

 

Jamie’s Group C prediction:

  1. Chelsea
  2. Atletico Madrid
  3. Roma
  4. Qarabag

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